Penn State's 'Bo Jackson' Faces a Big Decision

Will Lonnie White Jr., a three-sport star in high school, play football for the Nittany Lions or baseball for the Pittsburgh Pirates?
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The Pittsburgh Pirates selected Penn State receiver Lonnie White Jr. with 64th pick of the Major League Baseball draft, launching a very personal decision process for White and his family.

Does the 18-year-old White, among the marquee players of Penn State's 2021 recruiting class, choose to sign with the Pirates and begin his professional baseball career? Or does he begin Penn State football training camp in August and pursue a two-sport career in college?

It's a difficult but fascinating choice for the player Penn State football coach James Franklin called "our version of Bo Jackson or Deion Sanders." And even Franklin said he continues to await White's decision.

"A few days ago, I thought it was a done deal," Franklin told reporters Thursday at the Big Ten Media Days, according to the Philadelphia Inquirer. "I knew what he was doing. I just got a text message [from White's mother Reggie] that it's changed in another direction. I'm not sure; I think it depends on the date.

"I didn't tell you what the direction was two days ago and I won't tell you what the direction is today, so don't try to assume anything."

While Franklin added to the intrigue, What and his family continue to weigh their options. What factors does White have to consider? Here are a few.

The Baseball Decision

White was among the nation's top high school baseball players at Malvern Prep, a third-team All-American according to Baseball America who hit .395 during his senior season. He's a 6-2, 210-pound prospect with a strong bat and plenty of outfield range. Initially, White committed to play baseball at Clemson before changing his mind and choosing Penn State for both sports.

Malvern Prep baseball coach Freddy Hilliard told the Philadelphia Inquirer that White is the "best athlete I've ever been around or seen at this level." He called White a "one-in-a-million baseball player" who no doubt could play both sports in college. But signing with the Pirates would eliminate that option.

According to Jim Callis of MLB Pipeline, the Pirates can spend about $2.2 million to sign their remaining 2021 draft picks: White and fourth-round pick Owen Kellington. The bonus slot value applied to White's pick is $1,050,300, according to MLB, though it's clear White will sign for more than that. Pittsburgh has the highest bonus-pool value among all MLB teams at $14,394,000.

The Pirates added intrigue to the process with their next selection, pitcher Bubba Chandler in Round 3. Like White, Chandler is a multi-sport athlete (he's a 6-3 quarterback) who planned to play football and baseball at Clemson. Ultimately, the Pirates signed Chandler to a $3 million bonus.

White and his family must answer these questions before they agree to a baseball contract: Are they comfortable with the Pirates and the bonus amount? Are they comfortable with the team's plan for his position and development? And is White comfortable embarking on the grueling lifestyle required to play minor league baseball?

One more important question: Does White understand the odds he faces in reaching the majors? According to a Baseball America 2019 study, 51 percent of second-round picks (40 percent of third-round picks) reached the majors from the 1981-2010 drafts. The total number of all signed players who made the majors in that period was 17.6 percent.

According to ESPN, players drafted have until Aug. 1 to sign.

The Penn State Decision

White was a consensus 4-star player in the 2021 recruiting class, an enticing prospect at receiver with the ability to contribute quickly at Penn State, which needs big-play receivers.

He was a two-time MVP at Malvern Prep, where he also played quarterback, and averaged 21.7 yards per reception in the team's shortened 2020 season. As a junior playing quarterback, White totaled nearly 2,000 yards of offense, rushing for 1,065.

Franklin assured White that he would be able to play both sports at Penn State, a schedule that would require some leeway on Franklin's part. White would attend Penn State on a football scholarship but likely would miss key parts of winter workouts and spring drills, where players improve most, if he played baseball.

Being a two-sport athlete at Penn State comes with its own set of questions. Could White participate in a football workout before a baseball game? Who's weight-training program would take precedence? Franklin said he addressed these details during the recruiting process.

"It’s hard to come to Penn State and be a traditional student," Franklin said. "It's challenging. And then it's challenging to be a student and play major Division I football. And then to balance that to play baseball is even more challenging, because not only does it affect you academically, but you also don't have an offseason. ... And hopefully we don't get in a situation where he plays a football game and then jumps on a flight and plays a baseball game later in the same day."

Pennsylvania and the NCAA added another discussion layer in July by passing legislation allowing college athletes to make money using their name, image and likeness. White could take advantage of that opportunity at Penn State, earning money as marketable a two-sport athlete. It's an element Penn State likely sold hoping to bring White onto campus.

Ultimately, the decision marks just the beginning for White, whose future is wide open.

"At one point, he was leaning toward just playing football," Franklin said. "What happens is, he goes and plays baseball, and he has success in baseball. I said, 'Listen, I'm going to support you in whatever you want to do, but we're going to talk about this.' This is hard to do. I want to make sure everybody understands what we're going to accomplish and how we're going to accomplish it together."

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